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This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

An Interview with City Archaeologist Joe Bagley

June 15th, 2015  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

Photo courtesy of Boston Archaeology

Though it’s one of America’s most historic cities, Boston certainly hasn’t stood still over the past four hundred years, and sometimes it takes a little digging to uncover the past. Puns aside, the intimate connection between archaeology and preservation has been on our minds over the past two weeks, as we’ve got an archeological dig underway just outside our office at Old City Hall! City archeologist Joe Bagley is leading a team of volunteers in the excavation of the former site of the Boston Latin School. We caught up with him recently to learn more about how the project’s progressed thus far.

Your team is about two weeks into the project – can you give us an update on what you’ve found? Any surprises?

Joe Bagley: As of this moment, we’re sitting on top of a cobblestone courtyard that was built as part of the 1810 construction of the former building to the Old City Hall, Johnson Hall, which was the courthouse. Just to the east of that, we have what looks like the foundation of a building. It’s a cut granite building. It might not be the building that we’re looking for, because cut granite tends to be a bit more on the later side. The building that we’re looking for [was built] in 1701, and that would be a little early to have this type of monumental block.

Tell us about the pros and cons of overseeing a dig in an area that’s as well-traveled as Old City Hall’s courtyard.

 JB: Because this is a public archeology program, the pros and cons are the same: the sheer volume of people. We want as many people as we can possibly get to be on this site – it’s one of the reasons that we put our pits where we did, right in the middle of the courtyard. We want the public to come out, and we’re really excited about having a dig that isn’t in a locals-only area or an area that’s more touristy. Old City Hall is definitely frequented by both. So we’re attracting tourists from around the world, but we’ve also gotten a ton of local workers and residents coming out to see the dig daily, on their lunch breaks.

Photo courtesy of Boston Archaeology

Most people probably don’t realize the city has an archaeologist on staff. How does archaeology fit into larger efforts by the Landmark Commission to protect and promote the city’s history?

JB: This is our 32nd year of the City archaeology program, and I think because of social media, we’re really just starting to get the word out and people are starting to pick up on what it is we do. I think that this fills in some of the gap in preservation and the preservation movement. I don’t think that everybody realizes the role that archaeology plays in preservation. It’s not just the buildings, although those are incredibly important. There are other aspects to it, too. I think people tend to write off historic sites when the buildings are gone. One of the things that we can demonstrate is that yes, the building may be gone, but there may actually be something remaining that’s still interesting and worthy of preservation. For instance, if this [Boston Latin] were a standing building, this would likely be a city landmark. But it is still here, just not in the way that we generally think of. We consider the landscape to be part of the historic components of these buildings. But I consider the landscape to contain additional information about the architectural components of the buildings. So for me, archaeology is an integral part of preservation.

After the conclusion of the dig, what are the next steps for analyzing what you’ve found?

 JB: We’ll take July to review what we’ve done. All of the artifacts will be transferred back to the lab. The same volunteers that are our here digging will then wash, sort and catalog the artifacts. Ultimately, we’ll be producing a report that goes to people at Old City Hall and others, but it will also be available to the public. So everyone will be able to access the data on what we actually pulled out of the ground.

After that, we have to determine whether we can or should come back to dig a bigger hole. We do have questions that may only be answered if we dig a larger hole. For instance, we found the edge of a foundation. But which building is it? It’s in the right spot for the 1701 rebuild of the schoolmaster’s house, it’s just not the material that we would have expected. We expected a fieldstone foundation, we’ve got cut granite. We might not be able to answer that until we make a bigger hole. So we’re thinking about where we could place a big hole and if we do place it, what would be the point? We’re not going to dig any more than we have to – meaning, unless we can justify it. We will destroy whatever we come across, so we if we can’t justify that that this is the right time to dig this stuff up, then we’ll just leave it there, because that’s the best way to preserve it.

Photo courtesy of Boston Archaeology

What else is on tap the season?

JB: Our next dig will start on July 7th. We’ll be digging at the Epiphany School in Dorchester at the Industrial School for Girls site. We’re going to be teaming up with the students at the school to excavate what we hope to be an 1850-1870s site associated with the girls’ school. If we find what we’re looking for, which is the outhouse, it should only be associated with the girls at the school ages 6-15 from a 20-year period. If that’s the case, we’re going to have [information about] a very tightly controlled data set, which will enable us to learn quite a bit about that specific group during that period of time.

If you’re in Downtown Crossing this June, stop by Old City Hall on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to see the dig for yourself. To follow along from afar, connect with Boston Archaeology on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for daily updates and photos.

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2 Responses

  1. Cindy says:

    I’ve been devouring the Facebook time-line updates on the dig. Thanks so much and please keep them coming!

  2. Dan says:

    Kudos to the city administration for funding the position of city archeologist. Joe recently gave a fascinating tour of archeologic sites on Boston Common. I would say they hired the right guy to communicate the value of archeology to the public.

Leave a Reply to Dan